The Juno beachhead delineated by the five mile long line of objective Yew was reached between 0900 and 1100 hours depending on the degree of resistance faced by the various advancing Canadian battalions. However, long after Yew was reached, isolated individuals and pockets of Germans were still proving to be a deadly nuisance, along with the thousands of mines and obstacles that littered the beach and immediate hinterland. Leaving the ‘hard crust of the Atlantic Wall’ behind them, the leading Canadians set out to secure the intermediate objective – Elm.
The insertion, during March 1944, of 352nd Division into the sector of the coast, which included Omaha Beach and the western portion of Gold Beach, had halved 716th Coastal Division’s frontage. This had allowed the Germans to establish a second line inland and give their defences some depth. However, this line, between two and four thousand yards behind the coastal strip, was thin and made up of field fortifications rather than the concrete casemates of the coastal Wiederstandneste. The second line behind Mike Beach was largely held by two or three companies of 441 Ost Battalion, while the second line inland from Nan beach consisted only of a strong point based on the Headquarters and Staff Company of II/736 Regiment at Tailleville and the ground defences around the Douvres radar station. These German companies tended to be positioned around important junctions and on ground of tactical importance with good fields of fire across the open country. While they had an essentially defensive role, in the German’s traditional layered defence, they also had a counterattack task. It has already been recorded that 8 Kompanie 736 Grenadiers had been spotted by aircraft and largely dispersed by naval gunfire while they were deployed in the open, searching for paratroopers, shortly after dawn. However, the full effect of this advantage had largely passed, by early afternoon.
With the assault companies, having secured the beachhead (Yew), the divisional scheme of manoeuvre was for the leading battalions’ second wave to cross the ‘secured’ beach and, with armoured support from the DD tanks, advance inland. Subsequently, the reserve battalions of 7 and 8 Cdn Brigades were to complete the advance to objectives on Elm. Meanwhile, assembling in the beachhead, 9 Cdn Brigade would complete Phase III of the divisional plan by securing Objective Oak, which lay along the line of the Caen Bayeux railway some ten miles inland. Phase IV (to be completed on D+1) would see the consolidation of the division along this line by the move forward by 7 and 8 Brigades. During Phases III and IV, if the opportunity presented itself, strong patrols, in the form of tanks of the Canadian armoured regiments and the armoured cars of the Corps Recce Regiment would be pushed forward to objective around Hill 112 and on the river south of Caen. It must be stressed that, by D Day, these exploitation tasks were regarded very much as contingency plans.
7 Cdn Brigade’s Advance Inland
The fight to overcome the defences along the open beaches and dunes of Mike Sector took ‘a full two hours but … by this time, some infantry groups were already far inland and substantial progress had been made towards the next objective’ However, Objective Yew was only fully secured at H+4 hours.
The Brigade’s first problem was a line of villages on the crest of the ridge looking down towards the beachhead: from left to right Reviers, Banville and St Croix. On the brigade’s right, C Company, 1 Canadian Scottish were not involved in a major fighting through a coastal strong point or clearance of a coastal village and were, consequently, quickly through the Atlantic Wall. Their initial advance inland against the Osttrupen of 441 Battalion, was relatively easy as the enemy had been badly dislocated by the naval and air bombardment in the Vaux area. 1 Canadian Scottish recorded details of C Company’s attack on St Croix in their after action report:
See map on page 123
‘… platoons were unable to move up at this time due to heavy fire. The Coy was in a serious position with enemy infiltrating through our flanks. Wireless contact with the Bn was now established and it was found that they were well to our rear and not immediately available, but they managed to contact a squadron of DD tanks, which immediately came up to our assistance. The enemy seemed to be completely surprised at our appearance and many of them got out of their slit trenches and ran without firing another shot.
‘Also at this time, Capt Brown, the artillery Forward Observation Officer with our party managed to get an arty concentration down on the enemy … In this short engagement, another forty prisoners were taken, bringing our total to sixty-five, 6 MGs and one 105mm gun.
‘A final word must be added giving credit to the stretcher bearers who worked fearlessly under the most trying conditions and were never found wanting when the cry for help went up.’
Eventually reinforced by the Winnipeg’s A Company from the second wave, at about 0900 hours, the Canadian Scots were moving on and clearing St Croix-sur-Mer, which despite the bombardment was stoutly held by 8 Kompanie 726 Grenadiers.
A Canadian infantry company’s tactical HQ prepares to move inland on the afternoon of D Day.
C Company of the Winnipegs had also been spared a major battle on the beach and was through Graye-sur-Mer and advancing on Banville, ignoring their open flanks. The Winnipegs’ war diary records that they,
‘…encountered several pockets of [Osttrupen] resistance en route but overcame each one until just south of Banville, where the enemy had dug in three MGs on commanding ground.’
The diarist continues that having ‘reached just short of assaulting distance before they were pinned down… the resistance was much stronger than intelligence had estimated’. In fact, Banville was the location of Major Lehmann’s Battalion Headquarters of II/726 Grenadiers and his HQ Staff Kompanie, who were holding their ground despite suffering heavily from the Allied bombardment.
Meanwhile, D Company, the Winnipeg’s battalion reserve, and the Commanding Officer’s party were moving up on Banville from Graye-sur-Mer to join C Company. According to the battalions war diarist, ‘Throughout this advance all sub units and Bn HQ had come under mortar and artillery fire of astonishing accuracy’. However, the battalion by now had the support of not only the mortars and medium machine guns of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa but also the self-propelled guns of 12th and 13th Canadian Field Regiments, who came into action on the edge of Courseulles. Fire from these units took some time to coordinate but once the enemy position was neutralised, the ‘Little Black Devils’ C and D Companies were able to cover the open ground and clear the machine guns and continue on to the village. Until 1310 hours, when Banville fell, the Winnipegs were still only two miles from the beach.
Initially the delay in opening vehicle gaps off Mike Beach had denied the infantry of 7 Cdn Brigade vital armoured support and the initial promising, but unsupported, advance slowed the tempo of operations to a crawl – almost literally amongst the inland villages. Some time later, an entry in the battalion war diary records how:
‘Portions of A and C Squadrons 6 Cdn Armd Regt [1st Hussars] went to the help of A Company [Winnipegs] with cool disregard for mines and A-tk guns, beat down the MG positions and permitted A Coy to mop up and advance to the south.’
It could be expected that now a combined arms battle (infantry, tanks and guns) was being fought progress would be quicker. However, the stoutly built village buildings, complimented by dugouts and shelters were difficult to clear and a few determined defenders tied down large numbers of infantry. This was the case in Banville where, despite being overrun and Major Lehmann being killed, at HQ II/726 Grenadiers, ‘The Adjutant defended the HQ bunker with a handful of men until nightfall. Then they fought their way out.’ The difference between the Osttruppen, who largely melted away at the first opportunity and a degree of determination amongst the coastal infantry, is marked. What is often forgotten is that the coastal divisions were leavened with combat experienced officers and NCOs.
Meanwhile, also exploiting the break through on the right flank, were the remainder of the Canadian Scottish (7 Cdn Brigade’s reserve battalion), who as recorded in the official history: ‘… was able to start its move across the grain fields towards St Croix-sur-Mer.’ This advance included D Company, who were equipped with bicycles, which had been provided to some infantry companies for use in what planners hoped to be a mobile battle. They ‘headed up an exit off the beach, across an open field, which was under MG fire, to secure to secure two bridges over the sur Seulles’ beyond St Croix-sur-Mer. Bicycles, as obsolescent as cavalry in these circumstances were understandably and promptly abandoned as a viable means of battlefield mobility. D Company platoons fanned out to seize and hold the bridges, completing most of their advance on foot.
The official history records that the Canadian Scottish continued its move inland and:
‘… En route it picked up its C Company, which had landed in the assault wave. There were a considerable number of casualties from machine gun fire during the advance, which was pushed with all possible speed. After dealing with snipers [more properly ‘isolated riflemen’] in St Croix the battalion continued its movement to the Seulles crossing of the village.’
A 105mm Priest battery in action on D Day.
A Canadian gunner stands guard in front of his 105mm Priest SP gun.
With St Croix taken by the combined efforts of the two battalions and six tanks of C Squadron 1st Hussars, the Winnipeg’s next objective was, the village of Creully. Lieutenant Battershill, in command of Number 7 Platoon, however, had an important mission,
‘to be dispatched to our right to join up with a like sized force from the British [50th Division] to form a strong point on the boundary between our two divisions to detect and stop any attempts at counter-attack …’
at this traditionally weak point. Lieutenant Battershill’s platoon, who in a damaged craft, had landed on their own in the area between the Canadians and British wrote:
‘After the initial landing and being in a strange land with only map references to guide us, we took some time to make contact with the rest of A Company. After a period of orientation with the Company [in St Croix sur Mer], we set off to find our rendezvous point with a British platoon on our right on the eastern outskirts of Cruelly. We established a platoon defensive position and were pleased to find that we were in the right place as we were contacted by the British soon after. We … consolidated our position, patrolled, and were on the lookout for any sign of enemy activity. A small number of prisoners were taken and processed through the British.’
On the left flank, as has already been described, the Reginas’ initial assault wave was committed to capturing WN 29 at Courseulles East and to clearing the town. Meanwhile, having led the second wave through the town, D Company advanced towards Reviers. According to Colonel Stacey,
‘The leading elements reached the village at about 1100 hours; by 1215 hours it was reported by C Company, which had followed D from Courseulles that the bridges in Reviers were secured’.
The capture of these bridges, defended by 7 Kompanie 726 Grenadiers, intact was a significant achievement and A Company was left behind to guard the important crossings of the Seulles and Mue Rivers. The remainder of the battalion fanned out to advance to the villages of Fontaine-Henry and Le Fresne-Camilly. These villages were reached by early evening.
With St Croix, Banville and Reviers taken 7 Cdn Brigade, and it’s supporting tank squadrons from 1/Hussars were through the main German defences and progress was relatively easy but slow. The enemy defences were based on anti-tank guns deployed in depth and infantry belonging to II/726 Grenadiers and 441 Ost battalion, who had been forced out of their positions just inland from the beach.
D Company Regina Rifles advancing through Reviers on D-Day.
From mid-morning, once they had struggled through the tenuous gaps off the beach, the squadrons of 1 Hussars had each supported one of 7 Cdn Brigade’s infantry battalions. Due to the slow concentration inland, the squadrons had initially deployed their tanks in troop sized groups in answer to the calls of the pinned down infantry. To compound their losses on the beach and amongst the coastal minefields, the advance inland reduced the Hussars’ strength to the point that A and B Squadrons between them had lost eighteen tanks. Most of the losses were attributed during this phase to German anti-tank guns sited on the inland ridges and to protective minefields around the defended villages.
The Canadian official historian recorded that in 7 Cdn Brigade’s area:
‘The enemy’s rear area was overwhelmed by our infantry, and the tanks of 6 Cdn Armoured Regiment [1 Hussars], once clear of the coastal inundations, found his staff cars and light vehicles easy targets.’
Having fought much of the morning with amongst or behind the Winnipegs, the Canadian Scottish advanced south east from St Croix towards the villages of Colombiers-sur-Seulles and Pierrepont, of which the latter lay along the line of Objective Elm. The battalion war diary states that they:
‘… advanced with little or no opposition. However, from the number of enemy wounded and dead found during the advance, there was proof that the enemy had once controlled that area. Upon arriving in Colombiers, further proof of the enemy’s rapid retreat was evident. Up until our entrance into the town, the Germans had had their [company] HQ here but they left in full retreat leaving their typewriter and office supplies behind them.
‘The Battalion carried on through the town after sampling various wines and ciders brought to them by the local inhabitants.’
Pleased to be taken prisoner, two men from an Ost battalion.
8 Cdn Brigade’s Advance Inland
The many delays inflicted on the Canadians who landed on Nan Sector, were not only the result of the delays and stronger than anticipated resistance at Wederstandnest 27 and 28 but was also the result of congestion in the coastal towns. As has already been recorded, 9 Cdn Brigade had started to land shortly after 1100 hours but found themselves bunched up in Bernières, while the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the Regiment de Chaudiere broke out of the town and headed inland. A series of entries in the QOR of C war diary describe the slow process of the break out:
‘0940 hours. There is considerable delay at this point while the companies assemble. B Coy’s casualties being so heavy they gather just off the beach and try to sort themselves out. A Coy having extricated themselves from the position on the right flank proceed to their Forming up Point. The Regt de Chaud have now landed but are prevented from passing through us by the very accurate fire of a battery of 88mm guns located just south of Bernières sur Mer.’
With the well concealed Spandaus of 8 Kompanie 736 Grenadiers and supporting anti-tank guns in a well developed defensive position on the high ground south of Bernières, any movement out of the village was impossible until the enemy were neutralised by fire. The Queen’s Own’s C Company was pinned down at the edge of Bernières by long range fire and was unable to cross the open fields behind the town. The supporting tanks of the Fort Garry Horse were also brought to a halt by a pair of anti-tank guns covering the slopes rising up to Bény-sur-Mer. 716 Division is recorded as having two batteries of anti-tank guns; a battery of ten guns on self-propelled mounts and a further battery of eleven towed guns, of which two were 88s and the remainder 75mm Pak 40s. Some of the towed guns were deployed on the coast to supplement the obsolescent 50mm guns at key points. However, accounts estimate that about twelve anti-tank guns were operational across the divisional front. Amongst those pinned down on the edge of the village was Rifleman Bull Ross who wrote:
‘There was heavy congestion of equipment. Some vehicles were directed to go left into an apple orchard. On the right of the road tanks and self propelled guns moved into a hayfield. Several tanks had taken hits. An 88mm [probably a 75mm] emplacement was well sited about half a mile ahead of us. Lt Col Jock Spragge called for smoke, the mortars laid down a smokescreen that blocked the Germans view. The tanks were blowing up. The crews inside were screaming. Shreds of tank metal were flying around everywhere. A German machine gun in a trench on the right began to spray us. Just behind me, an artillery observation officer had been trying to find where the 88mm was located; he was hit by a burst of fire. Eventually a section of our men co-ordinated with one of the tanks and they cleaned out the 88mm and captured a number of prisoners. But we suffered a lot of casualties from that machine gun on the right and the 88 up ahead on our left.’
Colonel Stacey noted that: ‘The Armour and infantry were held up for nearly two hours until our artillery and medium machine guns could silence the opposition. Then the infantry was gradually infiltrated up the road from Bernières towards Bény-sur-Mer.’ Under heavy bombardment, with tanks and infantry closing in the German defence waivered and broke. In clearing the enemy position, the QOR of C had been ordered by Brigadier Blackadder to go beyond Objective Yew and onto what should have been the Chaudiere’s initial objective but the latter battalion was still moving up and the Queen’s Own had the initiative and combat power to do the job. The QOR of C battalion’s war diarist continued:
Men of the Chaudiere Regiment moving through Bernières to the inland battle.
Regiment de la Chaudiere.
‘1000 hours. The 88 battery having been finally taken care of the Regt de Chaud move ahead followed at a discreet distance by our C and D Coys mounted on the tanks and other available vehicles.
‘1400 hours. Several stops on the road before Beny-sur-Mer is clear enough to move in. Here there was more delay while the Regt de Chaud went on to capture Basly.’
The exact time at which Bény and its artillery battery was cleared of the enemy is not recorded but the Regiment de Chaudiere reported that they were advancing south from Bény towards Basly at 1530 hours and shortly afterwards that ‘Forward companies reported themselves in Basly’. German resistance had clearly not crumbled with the capture of Bény, as it had taken the Chaudiere nearly an hour and a half to advance less than a mile, even with the support of the Shermans of the Fort Garry Horse.
On 8 Brigade’s left flank, it will be recalled that Wiederstandneste 27 in St Aubin was the North Shore Regiment’s main problem, which had monopolized B Company’s attention for most of the day. However, A Company had crossed the beach and made good progress inland, reporting that they had pushed on and had approached Tailleville during Phase 1 (the assault Phase). Despite this early promise, taking this village, which was the Headquarters of II/736 Regiment and largely held by the Battalion’s Staff Kompanie, was to take a considerable time.
Soldiers of the Chaudiere Regiment photographed waiting to advance on D Day.
The open country across which the North Shore advanced.
Captain Le Blanc, Second in Command of C Company, a part of the North Shore’s second wave, assembled in St Aubin in good order having suffered few casualties:
‘The advance started on toward Tailleville, our objective. As we were advancing with one platoon on the right and another on the left, with men spread out into the fields, the enemy mortars opened up. Sergeant Girvan came running back wounded in the neck. He was evacuated after being given first aid, then casualty reports started coming from the platoons. The tanks gave us good support so we kept slowly moving ahead.’
Also advancing south from St Aubin was tank troop commander Lieutenant Little of the Fort Garry Horse, who could see up to a hundred enemy soldiers of 736 Regiment withdrawing from the coastal defences:
‘The excitement was just fantastic, and I called my other tank and pointed out the target and said, “let them have it!” It was a real bird-shoot. We caught them in the open, with all the guns. The exhilaration after all the years of training, the tremendous feeling of lift, excitement exhilaration, of doing this! It was like the first time you had gone deer hunting, and the deer had come out. You quivered with excitement.’
However, as infantry and tanks closed in on Tailleville enemy fire increased and the advance ground to a halt. Meanwhile, with the majority of his force ashore, Major General Keller left the headquarter ship HMS Hilary with his Tactical Headquarters at 1145 hours to join his troops in what was now a reasonably secure beachhead. Landing at Bernières, he was joined some two hours later by the first part of ‘Div Main HQ’ and the first headquarters of the campaign was established in an orchard on the outskirts of the village. Having established communications, an angry General Keller called for three of his brigadiers (8, 9 and 2 Armoured Brigades) to consider the difficulty and consequent delays that the division was experiencing in advancing on its left flank. The divisional war diary confirms that,
‘No change of plan was ordered: 8 Cdn Inf Bde was still to capture Beny-sur-Mer, after which 9 Cdn Inf Bde could be passed through on its axis towards Carpiquet.’
General Keller was extremely frustrated that the situation, which had seemed favourable when he decided to land 9 Cdn Brigade on Nan Beach, had turned sour, but with the River Seulles on the brigade’s right flank he had little option but to persist with his original plan.
With the North Shore’s A Company having now been joined by C and D Companies to the north of Tailleville, they found that,
‘The defenders were well dug in and provided with an extensive system of tunnels which gave excellent opportunities to snipers’. In addition, as this was a German HQ location, a number of concrete positions and shelters had been built. Stiffened by the presence of the battalion commander and sheltered by the stout buildings, and concrete strengthened cellars, the Germans put up a good and protracted fight. In doing so they showed that well led, and with a little luck, in that they had missed the worst of the Allied fire plan, coastal troops in soundly prepared positions, could be effective against the best assault troops. Even when defeat was inevitable they fought on. The last message from Headquarters II/736 Grenadiers in Tailleville, timed 1548 hours, is recorded in the regimental war diary: ‘Hand-to-hand fighting inside the command post. We are hemmed into a closely confined area, but still holding out.’
General Keller and staff ashore near the D Day house.
C Company, eventually crushed the main centre of resistance during an attack launched at 1800 hours, with the support of thirteen Shermans. About fifty prisoners were taken at the cost of fourteen Canadians killed, including a company commander, Major MacNaughton. However, the fighting to clear the village and surrounding areas went on until 2100 hours, with the engineers deploying their man-pack flamethrowers to eliminate the final pockets of resistance. The enemy who fought on at Tailleville, in contrast with the majority of Osttruppen further west in the divisional area, prevented the North Shores from advancing to clear the Douvres radar station or from reaching Objective Elm. The fight to clear the radar station is covered in Chapter 7. It must be recognized that the delay imposed on the 3rd Canadian Division by II/736 Grenadiers at Tailleville contributed significantly to their failure to reach their objective on the Caen-Bayeux Road on D Day. The fight at Tailleville also provides an insight into what would have faced the Allied invaders had Rommel had the time and resources to build a substantial second line, rather than rely on troops who were mainly occupying field fortifications.
PM D Day, the Canadians have dug-in are ready to fight 21st Panzer Division.
Oberleutenant Werner Fieberg, escaped capture at Tailleville. He recorded that:
‘The strong point was overrun by the British. I only avoided capture, as I was away from the headquarters to visit our artillery observers. We had no rations and little ammunition or material, so we waited until dusk, and once darkness had fallen, tried to get past English positions, patrols and bivouacs, and break through to our lines. Our progress was slow as the enemy was everywhere and after four days, my group was laying in a coma, exhausted, having hardly anything to eat or drink in the meantime, we were discovered and taken prisoner’
See map on page 139
The Advance to Objective Elm and Beyond
With the Germans holding out at Tailleville on the Division’s left flank, the QOR of C and the Chaudiere continued their advance from Bény-sur-Mer and Basly to Colomby-sur-Thaon and Anguerny, followed by 9 Cdn Brigade. The main German resistance had been broken and the Canadian advance was now opposed by small groups of enemy troops, some of whom were conducting a fighting withdrawal, while others fired in the hope of keeping the Canadians at a respectable distance while they escaped. With objective Elm reached, Colonel Stacey recorded that 9 Cdn Brigade took over the lead from the QOR of C and the Chaudiere and advanced towards the northern outskirts of Caen and the Carpiquet airfield:
See map on page 139
‘9 Cdn Inf Bde did not encounter serious resistance until it reached Villong-les-Buissons, some four miles from Caen. Here the leading battalion (North Nova Scotia Highlanders) was held up by troublesome machine gun positions.’
Further west, in 7 Cdn Brigade’s area, the Regina Rifles advanced from Reviers towards Fontaine-Henry and just about reached objective Elm. In the circumstances, this was a very good achievement for a battalion that had assaulted Nan Green, cleared Courseulles and broken the German second line at Revieres. On the division’s right flank, 7 Cdn Brigade’s reserve battalion, the Canadian Scottish took over from the Winnipegs and surged across Elm towards Cainet and Camily. Meanwhile, elements of 2 Cdn Armoured Brigade were fanning out ahead taking advantage of the absence of anti-tank guns now that they were through the enemy second line. In addition, there were no enemy tanks reported. 3rd Canadian Division’s summary of operations recorded that:
Canadian commanders and signallers from 2 Armoured Brigade monitor the progress of the battle.
‘Two troops of 6 Cdn Armd Regt [1st Hussars] had actually penetrated to the final objective [Oak] near Bretteville but after destroying many of the enemy, withdrew without loss’. These two tank troops and others had advanced on their own without support and, consequently found themselves isolated without infantry support. Vulnerable to attack by enemy armed with Panzerfausts, they withdrew back to positions with the infantry who were pinned down by pockets of enemy resistance based on machine guns.’
This early incident points to the criticism later levelled at both British and Canadians that their armour and infantry while ‘co-operating’ on the same battlefield, tended to fight their own battle.
Although in action for over ten hours, 7 Cdn Brigade had done well and the Canadian Scottish were clearly through the organized enemy defences. 9 Cdn Brigade had also only deployed one of its battalions and arguably had plenty of combat power. However, tiredness, the earlier delays and a certain amount of ‘confusion of battle’ was capped by intelligence indications descending the chain of command that the ‘panzers were coming’. This brought the day’s advance inland to a halt. Rather than fighting to hold ad hoc positions along the line of Objective Oak, south of the Caen Bayeux Road, the Canadians would defend their gains where they stood. The infantry dug in and the anti-tank guns were brought forward.
A panzer MkIV of 21st Panzer Division breaks cover.
Canadian Bren gun crew guard approaches to the landings.
21st Panzer Division West of Caen
As a result of his experiences at the hands of the Allied airforces in the Mediterranean, Generalfeldmarshall Rommel argued that he needed the vital panzer formation, within immediate striking distance of the coast, if he was to repel an invasion. However, C in C West, Generalfeldmarshall von Rundstedt, disagreed and supported the conventional view of identifying the enemy’s main effort before concentrating to strike, while leaving coastal formations to contain and reduce the invader’s combat power. Exponents of both opinions appealed to the Führer, who promptly ordered that the majority of the panzer troops were not to be committed without his personal authority. Consequently neither side prevailed and the German commanders were left with a chaotic solution that suited neither opinion.
Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger, commander of 21st Panzer Division.
Rommel was given command of just three panzer divisions, of which the 21st (of Afrikakorps fame) was located between Caen and Falaise. The rest of the panzer divisions remained under HQ Panzergruppe West, with two divisions, Panzer Lehr and 12th Hitlerjugend SS Panzer Division, being twelve to forty-eight hours march from the invasion coast. However, as the armoured reserve, they could only be committed with Hitler’s authority. Matters were further complicated by the fact that the Hitlerjugend was under SS command rather than the Wehrmacht.
Fearing the early intervention of panzers, Montgomery had amended the OVERLORD plan, widening the invasion front to some sixty miles, in order to dissipate the German response. From the outset German reserves marched to both flanks to counter the airborne landings. Around Caen, the 21st’s panzer grenadiers were quickly in action against 6th Airborne Division and 22 Panzer Regiment, having been alerted at 0100 hours, was marching to join them, harried as they drove north by Allied fighter-bombers. However, before they came into contact the situation changed and Generalmajor Feuchtinger was instructed that his schwerepunkt lay west of Caen. The panzers turned about and started to make their way through Caen’s suburbs. At 1300 hours, Feuchtinger again halted his columns. This time to regroup his command into three Kampfgruppen based on his three regiments (each equivalent to an Anglo/Canadian brigade). 125 Panzer Grenadier Regiment (125 Pz Gr Regt) or as it was known Kampfgruppe von Luck, were directed back through Caen to attack 6th Airborne Division. The division’s other two Kampfgruppen were to attack the British beachheads west of Caen. One Kampfgruppen was heavy armour, with two panzer and one infantry battalions, and the other, Kampfgruppe Rauch, based on 192 Pz Gr Regt, had a single panzer battalion but two infantry battalions. The regrouping took two hours, as the marching and countermarching had inflicted its usual mechanical vehicle casualties in addition to losses from Allied air interdiction. Oberst von Luck wrote:
‘The regrouping of the division took hours. Most of the units, from the area east of Caen and the Orne had to squeeze through the eye of a needle at Caen and over the only bridges available in this sector. Caen was under virtually constant bombardment from the navy and fighter bombers of the RAF.’
The importance of 21st Panzer Division’s mission is underlined by the presence of General Marcks, the Corps Commander, who personally led Kampfgruppe Rauch into its assembly area. The division was to drive a wedge between the Sword and Juno lodgements and drive the enemy back into the sea. At 1620 hours, the two Kampfgruppen advanced northwards. Kampfgruppe Rauch was on the left heading towards the coast and 3rd Canadian Division.
General Erich Marcks.
These tactical delays were exacerbated by failure of German operational command to release the other panzer divisions. Von Rundstedt had given the Hitlerjugend and Panzer Lehr orders to move at dawn hours, believing that his common sense order would be confirmed by OKW. However, Hitler had not been woken with news of the landings and, at 0600 hours, OKW ‘angrily countermanded von Rundstedt’s release the panzers’. The tank crews who had rushed to their vehicles as code words were telephoned around divisional areas now waited, as rumour circulated and Allied aircraft could be seen dominating the sky above them. It was well after mid-day when Hitler eventually awoke and was briefed.
It is wrong to entirely attribute the delay as a result in releasing the Panzergruppe West’s armoured reserves to the failure to wake Hitler before dawn. In German headquarters in France and Berlin, the legitimate question was ‘Is this the real invasion?’ Thanks to the highly successful deception operation, FORTITUDE, the Germans had vastly overestimated the number of Allied divisions waiting in England. The commitment of three airborne divisions out of what the Germans incorrectly estimated was nine such divisions, even if supported by amphibious landings, could well have been designed to enduce them to deploy their scant reserves. It was only by late morning that it was confirmed that elements of seven Allied infantry divisions had landed in the first wave and the Germans were convinced that this was more than merely a raid on a grand scale. The problem is very well summarised by SS Sturmbannführer Hayn who was a member of the Hitlerjugend’s intelligence staff:
North Nova Scotia Highlanders radio operator. Photographed on the afternoon of D Day.
‘… the minutes dragged by. One individual report followed another; they confirmed or contradicted each other. Army or Army Group HQ were constantly telephoning. But all the Corps staff could do was to wait – wait until the confused overall picture had been clarified, until the main centres of the dropping and landing zones had become apparent.’
However, in the case of 21st Panzer Division, it was the confusion of battle, rather than the deliberations of the high command that had delayed the delivery of coherent orders. Under pressure, commanders were forced to make decisions based on incomplete and often wrong information. Consequently, as recorded above, Generals Feuchtinger and Marcks had 21st Panzer Division marching and countermarching in the Caen area for most of the day. Montgomery’s plan had successfully prevented the enemy from being able to intervene at the decisive point and at the decisive time. It is an often forgotten fact that the fundamentally sound OVERLORD plan was one of the most significant factors in the D Day victory.
With the armoured threat approaching, the armoured tank regiment’s guns were brought forward.
The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa brought up their medium machine guns and mortars to hold the ground gained.
As has already been recorded, situation reports warning of the approach of 21st Panzer Division had started to descend the 3rd Canadian Division’s chain of command during the late afternoon. This had the effect of halting the Canadians’ advance inland, as commanders sought to balance their forces to withstand a counter-attack, rather than push headlong to their final objectives. The infantry’s battle procedure changed from offensive to defensive. Forward companies were halted, if possible in advantageous positions, while following companies and units closed up to add depth to defences. Commanders’ highest priorities were to co-ordinate the anti-tank plan. 2nd Armoured Brigade went into positions where they could counter-attack any enemy penetrations. The self-propelled and towed guns of the anti-tank regiment were positioned covering the main armoured approaches, while the 6-pounders of the infantry battalions covered other approaches and the spring loaded Projector Infantry Anti-Tank (PIAT) were deployed to give defence against panzers to individual infantry platoons.
See Chapter 6
Meanwhile, on the coastal strip, Lieutenant Colonel Moulton and 48 Commando Royal Marines, having been checked at the enemy strong point in Lagrune-sur-Mer and gone into defensive positions to contain the German defenders of WN 26 for the night, now faced inland as well.
In the event, 3rd British Division’s defences shaped the enemy armoured Kampfgrupen’s drive to the sea and the panzers drove into the gap between the Allies’ Juno and Sword lodgements. Other than recce and flank protection detachments, little of 21st Panzer Division came into serious contact with the Canadians. However, at 2100 hours, in the last hour of daylight, ‘a hush fell over the battlefield’, as a distant hum grew into a great throbbing wall of sound. Fleets of Allied transport aircraft appeared on the horizon. Lines of parachutes bloomed in the sky and gliders swept down in Landing Zone in the area of Ouisterham. Unteroffizier Kortenhaus watched from the turret of a Panzer IV:
‘…no one who saw it can forget. Suddenly the hollow roaring of countless aeroplanes, and then we saw them, hundreds of them, towing great gliders, filling the sky.… The sky was full of colour, flame and falling objects, and it was impossible to know where to look.’
The effect of this overwhelming display of air power on German morale was immediate. Not least because the panzers had already been confronted, as they came down the ridge towards the coast, with a seascape crammed with shipping of all sorts and sizes, and now they seemed in danger of being cut off by airborne forces. Morale hit and lacking sufficient infantry, 21st Panzer Division was not going to be able to maintain the battle overnight, the Germans broke off the engagement and withdrew.
Many have commented on the failure of the Allies to reach their D Day objectives. In the case of the British and Canadian divisions of Second Army, it was appreciated at the time that taking Caen and the deployment of armoured patrols south towards the high ground of Hill 112 was ambitious. However, a commander needs to set challenging objectives and have plans ready to help exploit any opportunity presented by the enemy.
While the Allies may not have reached their objectives, Generallieutenant Richter, estimated that 716th Division lost four-fifths of its infantry strength on D Day. ‘…of four German and two Russian battalions there remained in the evening one German battalion which had had about twenty percent casualties; otherwise only remnants.’ Colonel Stacey recorded that ‘Eighty per cent of the German artillery was gone; west of the Orne two batteries were left, each with three guns’. The division had been taken apart by the Allies and it had all but ceased to exist. However, on Juno Beach, with the delay between the end of the heaviest part of the fire plan and the landing, the Germans had fought creditably and ‘gave a good return’.
This return was in the form of Canadian and British dead and wounded, ‘which though heavy, were fewer than had been feared’. However, it is difficult to make an authoritative statement of the casualties suffered by those landing on Juno Beach on D Day. In common with every other beach, the bulk of the casualties fell to the assault infantry battalions. For instance, the QORC lost 143 men and the Winnipegs 128 casualties and the North Shores 125. In total 3rd Canadian Division lost 275 all ranks killed, 539 wounded and about fifty taken prisoner, which gives a total just short of a thousand. To this must be added the losses suffered by the Navy and Royal Marine landing craft crews, 48 Commando and the assault troops of 79th Armoured Division and, last but not least, 103 Beach Group and 51st Highland Division. This gives a D Day figure of approaching 2,000 casualties for Juno Beach.